My first Ati-Atihan Festival (January 2020)

Hala Bira literally means ‘dispense all means.’ Many times, it also means ‘blessings to us all’. It is an Aklanon phrase that is usually chanted during the Ati-atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan. Today’s the phrase is chanted almost all over the archipelago during festivals, parties, and other social gatherings. The last time I heard the phrase chanted live was in January 2020. 

The Ati-Atihan, likened to the ‘Mardi Gras’ only ‘fused with the veneration of the Santo Niño’ (the Child Jesus), says William Peterson in Places for Happiness: Community, Self, and Performance in the Philippines, is composed of a series of impassioned dances called sad-sad (loosely to jump to the beat of the drum). The weeklong festival culminates on a weekend via a competition of cultural dancing in the streets among the ‘tribes people’ of Aklan (or the townspeople flamboyantly costumed as the Indigenous ati, the original inhabitants of the island) who do not only honour the Santo Niño, but also respectfully acknowledge their ancestors: the ati or the dark-skinned Negritos. According to dance scholar Patrick Alcedo in his research essay in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, ‘most Ati-atihan participants apply soot on their faces and extremities to appear like the putative first inhabitants of the Philippines’.

I was in Kalibo in January 2020 as one of the 16 judges of the annual dance competition. I was with another colleague from the University of the Philippines Diliman. We were stationed in front of a huge mall along the town plaza opposite the huge square of the city-centre. My colleague and I were assigned to evaluate the gracefulness of the performers: to look at how the sad-sad movements of the tribes are synchronised with the beating of the drums. For the two of us, it was an exciting encounter. Why not? It was our first time to witness what is commonly highlighted as the ‘mother of all festivals’ in the Philippines.

However, our visit to Kalibo was cut short. We were supposed to attend one participate in the other Mardi-Gras-like performance of the city-wide prusisyon. Our host already provided our Sto. Niño, which we would be dancing with during the sad-sad.

Our host had to rebook our airfare for us to fly back to Manila immediately. A group of tourists in Aklan’s Caticlan Airport, the gateway to Boracay Island, a popular tourist destination in the archipelago, some 70 kms away from Kalibo, had to be quarantined for showing symptoms of Covid-19, then a new virus that was beginning to haunt the world. Our host feared that an emergency lockdown would be imposed in the city and it would be difficult for us to leave Kalibo, considering my colleague and I left some work with junior faculty members at the University.

The Covid-19 virus was not yet threatening the Philippines at that time. However, everyone knew that the epidemic had a huge possibility of transforming itself into a pandemic. Until the last week of January, there were zero cases in the country. In fact, I was still able to travel to Australia in February. Nonetheless, everyone was anxious. The first quarter of the year has always been the coldest in this tropical nation. According to the Department of Health, the virus is highly active during the cold season. 

On 16 March 2020, then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed what was called an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), initially in the National Capital Region, but eventually putting the entire main island of Luzon on a total lockdown, quarantining 57 million people as reported in various local broadsheets. This was imposed to protect the transmission of the virus from one person to another and one community to another, especially since by March 2020, the epidemic was already a global health crisis.

What was originally intended to be a short island-wide lockdown continued until the end of 2020 albeit some changes were implemented throughout the year. On 1 May 2020, the IATF introduced the ‘Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine’ (MECQ), where some institutions and establishments would be allowed to host gathering of up to 10 individuals. Eventually, a ‘General Community Quarantine’ (GCQ) and a Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) were instituted. Venues for social gathering including religious ones could be filled up to 30 percent and 50 percent of their capacity, respectively. 

Being a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, religious rituals and festivals including the Anti-Atihan were heavily affected by the lockdown. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) immediately responded to the call of the national government especially since many of its ritualistic and festive performances involve human contact (i.e. touching and kissing figures of saints and other religious images, kissing the hand of the presiding priest, and holding each other’s hands while singing). As explained by the Catholic clergy, these performances of touch and contact serve as the faithful’s direct and intimate relationship to the heavens.

Here are some photos that I took in 2020. The photographs, the frenzied atmosphere are all indicative of hopes for a better future – a better normal.

The festive Kalibo in the week-long Anti-Atihan Festival (Photo: SAPT)

The gateway to the city-center (Photo: SAPT)

The reigning Ms. Ati-Atihan (Photo: SAPT)

By nighttime, Kalibo becomes a one huge street party! (Photo: SAPT)

One “tribe” competing for the grand prize during the cultural dance competition (Photo: SAPT)

Praying while performing the sad-sad, a member of another tribe competing for the grand prize (Photo: SAPT)

Amazed by the wonderful costumes of this tribe (Photo: SAPT)

Another competing tribe for the grand prize (Photo: SAPT)

The Anti-atihan Festival – the “mother of all Philippine Festival” (Photo: SAPT)

In 2021, the LGU in Kalibo and the Church decided to postpone the week-long festivity and instead produced a documentary film on the origin of the festival, which as stated by Kalibo Councillor Philip Kimpo, is a virtual commemoration of the mother of all Philippine festivals. No live performance of the sad-sadand no street dance festival were held but the LGU premiered Ati-Atihan 2021 Vibrant in the New Normal on its social media pages.

However, this did not prevent Kalibonan and other devotees to do the sad-sad and play its music live inside the vicinity of each Kalibonan’s home. Some even wore their mardi-gras costumes partnered with custom-made facemasks to tie-up with the entire dresses. Devotees still performed the sad-sad all night-long and all-day long as panata within their vacant spaces such as the garage and their gardens. Non-members of the household were not welcomed to avoid potential transmission of the deadly virus. In short, the lively, vibrant and festive Kalibo during the Ati-atihan did not die down except it was not performed onto the streets as a mass spectacle.

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